‘Cries from Syria’ unflinchingly documents refugees’ plight
Afineevky’s documentary premieres Sunday
January 20, 2017
In 2016, the United Nations estimated 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 6 million of the total have been displaced.
The U.N. also roughly calculated that more than 4.8 million lSyrian citizens have moved outside their home country since the Syrican Civil War started in 2001.
In award-winning filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky's documentary "Cries from Syria," which will premier at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 22, children and parents recount how the Syrian revolution began and how it quickly escalated to a war where torture, beatings and mass killings of citizens occur at the hands of the country's military regime on a daily basis.
Consequently, the film, which was picked up by HBO, features some disturbing and violent images, culled from more than 100 hours of first-person footage shot by citizen journalists and activists.
Afineevsky's interest in the Syrian crisis started in 2014, while shooting "Winter on Fire," an Academy Award- and Emmy Award-nominated documentary about the Ukrainian Revolution.
"During my last month in the Ukraine, I did see the flag of the Syrian Revolution there," Afineevsky said during a Park Record interview. "That really struck me."
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Shortly thereafter, Afineevsky saw Jehane Notjaim's documentary "The Square," which was about the Egyptian Revolution.
"It was one after another," Afineevsky said. "So, when I finished 'Winter on Fire,' I still was in Europe and decided to start on some research."
While learning about Syria's history, especially focusing on the past 40 years of dictatorship that started with Hafez al-Assad and continued with his son Bashar al-Assad, who became president in 2000, Afineevsky knew something needed to be done.
Then he saw the new images of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Kurdish boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach last September after the inflatable raft he and 15 other refugees were using to flee Syria capsized in the Mediterranean sea.
"The catalyst for the film came after the situation and death of Alan Kurdi," Afineevsky said.
The biggest challenge was telling the full story of the Syrian plight in a comprehensive, two-hour documentary.
"When you jump into a story like this, you don't really know how you are going to tell it," he said. "When I was collecting material and doing research, I didn't know what I was going to portray.
"In the beginning, I thought about emphasizing the Syrian refugees and the kids who are struggling through all of this," Afineevsky said. "As I got more and more into the history, I realized that I needed to tell the story by chapters to make it more simple for the audience to understand each step of the events."
The unrest started in the spring of 2011, shortly after Syrian citizens began protesting the torture, beating and killing of teens who were critical of al-Assad's regime.
"That was the last straw that brought the revolution, which became a civil war that has made brother fight brother," Afineevsky said. "All of a sudden, there is a situation where the failing regime began getting help from the outside who are involved with all of these catastrophes."
Outsiders included Russia, whose air strikes targeted homes, apartments and schools.
"By putting the story into chapters, the audience can understand why these people, these refugees are fleeing Syria," Afineevsky said. "The refugee crises is all related to one simple thing: the war in the country."
The filmmaker wanted his documentary to clear up some misconceptions about the Syrian refugees.
"These people are just trying to survive," he said. "They aren't trying to take over Europe of other countries. They are just trying to stay alive. And a lot of parents who are still in Syria are sending their kids out of the country to save their lives."
Children are a crucial part of "Cries From Syria," and it would have been easy for Afineevsky to exploit the children in the film. It would have also been easy for him to go the other way and not give the children a platform to tell their stories.
So, he tried to find a balance.
"The revolution started with the brutality on the children and young protestors that we saw from the footage," Afineevsky said. "When you see the footage, no one can deny that the suffering of these kids is inhuman. And these children who are going through this situation is the lost generation and they need to be heard."
These kids, some not even teenagers, have lost their childhood and have become soldiers, fighters, protestors and providers.
"You can see in the movie that kids light tires on fire so heavy smoke can prevent air planes from flying over and shelling their neighborhoods," Afineevsky said. "You see them in the morning bringing water to their families and going through the trash to find food. It's amazing to see these young children acting like adults.
"Ultimately, this is their revolution, because at the end of the day, these kids will be the ones who will rebuild Syria [in the future]," he said.
Still, Afineevsky doesn't know what it will take to end the crisis.
"It's hard to say because I'm not a politician," he said. "I'm a filmmaker. I'm an artist. I'm here to tell their stories. I'm here to allow their voices to be heard and translate all that has happened there in a cinematic image that can be understood by the people.
"At the end of the day, these people, the citizens of Syria, are fighting for their human rights," he said. "The only reason some of them have weapons is to protect their families.They are not terrorist. These are people who are looking for help and asking for help. And I hope things can start to change after people see this movie."
"Cries from Syria" premieres at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22, at The MARC in Park City. Screenings will continue at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Library Center Theatre in Park City; at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, at Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City and at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City. For information, visit http://www.sundance.org.